NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints and Pelicans owner Tom Benson — and the current power structure he has set up — have cleared a crucial legal hurdle in a struggle for control of the NFL and NBA teams.
A judge ruled Thursday that the 87-year-old Benson remains competent to run his nearly $2 billion business empire as he sees fit. The ruling means Benson's decision to oust his daughter and her two children from ownership positions with the sports franchises will stand.
Judge Kern Reese dismissed a lawsuit by Benson's recently disowned daughter, Renee, and her two children, Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, which has created months of high-profile acrimony within the family.
While Benson never testified during a closed, eight-day civil trial in state district court this month, Reese stated in his ruling that he interviewed Benson himself, rather than subjecting him to questioning by lawyers.
"The court sat across from the defendant, looked into his eyes, listened carefully to his responses, and concluded the capacity to make reasoned decisions was present," Reese wrote in his ruling.
The ruling legally upholds Benson's decision nearly six months ago to place his third wife, Gayle, first in line to inherit control of his NFL and NBA teams and other businesses — including auto dealerships, a bank, TV station and real estate holdings — instead of the recently disowned heirs, who'd been groomed for many years to take over.
The jilted heirs sued in January, asking Reese to rule that their patriarch was mentally unsound and being unduly manipulated by his wife — in concert with top Saints and Pelicans executives — when he changed his succession plan.
Reese's ruling could be appealed.
While plaintiffs' attorney Randall A. Smith did not specify his clients' next legal move, he indicated they won't give up.
"Renee Benson, and Rita and Ryan LeBlanc, are disappointed that the court opted not to appoint a curator ... to protect their father and grandfather," Smith said in a written statement. "For his sake, and that of the fans, customers, and employees, they will continue to take whatever steps are necessary to assure his well-being and that of the Saints, Pelicans, and Benson automobile dealerships."
The estranged heirs still stand to inherit hundreds of millions of dollars, but Tom Benson has sought to swap out assets in his disowned heirs irrevocable trusts to remove their ownership stakes in his teams and other businesses.
The attempt to change the trusts is tied up in a separate lawsuit in federal court in New Orleans. If Tom Benson fails in that case, his estranged heirs would retain some ownership of the teams, but would not have any voting shares.
A third lawsuit involving an older trust containing business interests in the San Antonio area is ongoing in probate court in Texas. There, a judge has appointed temporary receivers to oversee the trust previously controlled by Tom Benson.
Benson first notified his daughter and her children of his decision to oust them last December in a type-written letter that he signed. The estranged heirs submitted the letter as evidence of Tom Benson acting out of character, noting that had been under numerous medications from recent knee surgery.
However, the judge noted that when he interviewed Tom Benson in April, Benson "had clarity of thought and volition, despite some memory lapses, that led the court to conclude that the foggy state of December 2014 had cleared.
Reese also noted that he found "perhaps the most credible fact witness" during trial earlier this month to be nurse Takiyah Daniels, who was present when Tom Benson signed the December letter.
Daniels testified that Tom Benson "agonized over distancing himself from his family members, cried about it, read the letter three times and then decided to place his signature on the document," Reese wrote. "No one stood over him while he signed it. It was his decision."
The judge had also ordered a mental evaluation by three psychiatrists — one selected by each side and a third agreed upon by the first two.
Two psychiatrists testified that Tom Benson, largely because of his age, showed signs of "mild cognitive impairment" that affects his short-term memory, "but does not rob him of his own volition to make reasoned decisions" or leave him "vulnerable to undue influence."
The psychiatrist hired by the estranged heirs testified that Tom Benson's impairment was "moderate to severe."
Renee Benson, 59, is Tom Benson's only living child and worked in his businesses for decades.
Rita LeBlanc, 38, began working for the Saints full time in 2001 and assumed an executive role with the Pelicans as well after her grandfather bought them in 2012.
Ryan LeBlanc, 35, managed some of his grandfather's businesses, primarily in Texas.
Gayle Benson, 68, is a former interior decorator who married Tom Benson in 2004.
Dennis Lauscha, the president for the Saints and Pelicans, and Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who also serves as a vice president for both clubs, have endorsed Gayle Benson's ascension in ownership as a step toward preserving continuity.